to-do lists

How to Master the Art of To-Do Lists by Understanding Why They Fail

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By Janet Choi

The to-do list is an inescapable, age-old productivity tool. It is our very human attempt to create order in our disorderly lives and express our ability to impose self-control. Most of us, including to-do list haters, keep one, and the fact is, they can work when you find the to-do method that works for you.

I don’t love to-do lists but found it odd that I still continue to use them. I sometimes worry they’re just a form of self-flagellation. Is my list-making just a futile exercise in productivity-flavored self-torture? Is the to-do list just a blunt instrument to wield in the quest for personal productivity and getting stuff done?

Am I actually achieving more in a given day because of my list? We went to the data from our users to find out.

Analyzing the efficacy of our users’ to-do lists

At I Done This, we used to have a to-do task feature, and we discovered some interesting numbers demonstrating the common struggle to conquer our to-do lists:

  • 41% of to­-do items are never completed.
  • 50% of completed to-­do items are done within a day.
  • 18% of completed to­-do items are done within an hour.
  • 10% of completed to­-do items are done within a minute.
  • 15% of “dones” started as to-do items.

In other words:

  • People aren’t that great at completing their to-do tasks.
  • Tasks that do get completed are done quickly.
  • Tasks that are reported as done don’t correlate with planned to-do tasks.
  • Most to-do lists are too long.

The popular to-do list, then, appears to be rather ineffective, and it’s this paradox that may explain the spiky love/hate relationship that people have with to-do lists. Or does the weakness lie deeper in ourselves in our human struggle to impose order and control?

It seemed too facile to chalk up the poor figures to the simple failure of to-do lists and/or humankind, so we wanted to take a closer look at why people aren’t good at completing their to-do lists.

Problem 1: We have too many to-dos on our list

First of all, most of us put way too much stuff on our lists.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney, authors of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, report in their book that one person typically has at least 150 different tasks at a time. They also say that a typical executive’s to-do list for a single Monday could take more than a week to finish.

Sounds like a setup for failure if there ever was one.

Overstuffing our lists causes a continuous thrum of worry in our head. This constant disquiet has negative effects in tackling the very tasks that are so worrying. As described in Willpower, psychologists Robert Emmons and Laura King discovered that the worry that results from having too many conflicting goals causes our productivity and our physical and mental health to suffer. Which, of course, leads to our health tanking, which makes our productivity get worse. It’s a vicious cycle.

So the to-do list gives and takes. We have so much to tackle, and a to-do list helps us remember everything. At the same time, it’s a nagging tool that can induce unhealthy and disarming anxiety.

Do the cons of a to-do list outweigh the pros if we’re not ultimately getting everything done?

Problem 2: Think of the to-do list as a starting place for planning

Zooming into the true purpose of the to-do list, we discover that a significant problem is that we’re just not good at constructing our to-do lists.

It’s not as simple as it looks. The to-do list is an external memory aid, or a reminder outside of your head, which nudges you about all the stuff you mean to do. Right—you knew that. What’s surprising about the research recounted in Willpower is that the to-do list’s badgering isn’t for you to actually get stuff done.

That intrusive pestering from uncompleted tasks and unmet goals hanging around in your mind is known as the Zeigarnik effect.

The logical response to “cure” the Zeigarnik effect would be to finish the tasks and meet the goals. However, studies by Baumeister and E.J. Masicampo found that the Zeigarnik effect was the unconscious asking the conscious mind to make a plan, as opposed to asking the conscious mind to get off its butt to complete some tasks.

In one of Baumeister and Masicampo’s studies, a group of students was instructed to think about an important final exam, while another group was told to make a specific study plan with details of what they would do, where, and when. Nobody actually studied during the experiment, they were just made to “think” about or “plan” their studying. When given word fragments to complete, the students who had been told merely to think about the upcoming test filled in exam-related words, while the study-plan group did not.

Even though the planners had, in effect, spent more time thinking about their task, with no progress made on the task itself, as Baumeister and Tierney explain in Willpower, their minds had apparently been cleared by the act of writing down a plan.”

It turns out that to-do lists aren’t as useful when you conceive of them as just a string tied around your finger. Many of us aren’t any good at formulating the tasks on the list, failing to think through steps and plans, so when we’re faced with too many tasks and too few suggestions on how to proceed, we don’t complete tasks.

Remember that the to-do list string around your finger is for you to make better plans using the list.

Problem 3: We give ourselves too much time

It makes sense, then, that our stats show that when people did complete tasks, they were done quickly. When goals are broken out into actionable steps, it takes less effort, energy, and time to cross those smaller tasks off the list.

Add to our lack of planning a tendency to be lenient about deadlines, and up goes the chances that we’ll never finish a task. As many fellow procrastinators know, the more time you give yourself to finish something, the less likely it is that you will finish in that time frame.

For example, behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that students who had longer to finish three papers performed worse than those who had externally imposed or self-imposed deadlines that were evenly spaced and earlier.

Problem 4: The list doesn’t account for real life

Only 15% of our members’ dones started out as to-dos. That’s a staggeringly small correlation.

Dones don’t match up with to-do tasks when we’re not great at formulating to-do list tasks to begin with. If, as discussed above, we don’t take the time to plan out specific actions for general goals or tasks, but we do take some forward steps, those steps won’t correlate with the original task. You can’t check off a task as “sort of” done.

Plus, we can’t predict the many interruptions that happen in our day.

The most common reason for failure to get through a to-do list is usually unplanned tasks such as unscheduled calls, emails, and meetings. Surprises pop up in our lives in and out of the office, creating little and big fires to be put out. Maybe the kids had to be taken to school when they missed the bus; the deal fell through; this coworker is never going to stop talking; the same coworker screwed up the budget, and now I have to fix it; this internet is so much more interesting than tasks A through Z right now.

Sometimes, the to-do list just can’t handle the changes that crop up, because we can’t tell the future.

Why we got rid of our to-do feature

We tried to incorporate a to-do feature because people told us they wanted to plan their day. We let the feature go because the main focus of our service at I Done This is dones.” As in, tasks you’ve already completed. And, of course, how motivating, revealing, and useful it is to record those dones.

But we still believe that to-do lists are helpful, and that dones help balance out the to-do list’s problems and shortcomings. To-dos and dones are two sides of the same productivity coin.

How to improve to-do lists

Make more specific, actionable plans. Make it easier to get to done by spending some time thinking about what that journey will look like. If I am reminded by my list to do some general task, like “write blog post,” instead of something specific, like “research and brainstorm some ideas for a blog post about to-do lists,” I’ll be much less likely to reach the intended goal.

At the same time, don’t micromanage your tasks, or you’ll feel locked in and unable to make adjustments and respond to things that come up. Use your dones as a reference to make better, more responsive plans.

Use implementation intentions during planning

An implementation intention is a planning strategy that helps automate a desired action. You plan out an if-then process, where you use a certain situation to lead to the desired response. Setting out in advance some specifics of when and where forms the “if” component of the implementation intention, and the specifics of how forms the “then” component.

In effect, you’re the director in the play of your life, giving the cue to act a certain way.

Give yourself earlier deadlines

In his study, Dan Ariely found that even when earlier deadlines were self-imposed, students performed better than those who had later deadlines. Which makes sense, of course. Distant deadlines create no sense of urgency and, in fact, can be forgotten entirely.

An earlier deadline stays at the forefront of your mind and pushes you to get it done.

Even if your project is huge, it should consist of multiple smaller deadlines instead of one mega deadline a year from now.

Prioritize the tasks that matter

Think of this step as task triage. Sure, we all have a theoretically endless to-do list, but most of the things on that gargantuan list can wait.

Look at those 150 tasks you have to do, and pick the most important, pressing or interesting ones to work on, big and small.

It’s easier to focus on five things (and get them out of the way) than to just stare helplessly at a mountain of tasks with no starting point.

Forgive yourself and count your wins

Since our minds can get overloaded to the point of distraction, forgive yourself for not getting to 150 tasks. Be realistic about what you can do in a day.

Remember that interruptions will pop up, and accomplishments don’t always start out as to-dos. You are probably getting a lot of stuff done that you’re not giving yourself credit for. So record and celebrate your dones, and let that motivation push you to tackle the next day’s or week’s tasks.

In fact, there is strong evidence that empathizing with your “future self” could lead to less procrastination and a more effective workflow. The idea is, you imagine talking to the version of you from tomorrow, next week, next year, etc. Think about how doing your tasks for today could improve that version’s life. How grateful that version of you might be if you get your work done today.

Embrace the idea of the “done” list

Instead of worrying about what’s left to do and busying yourself with more and more tasks, spend your time wisely on what’s important, with the motivation and insight gained from your “done list.”

A “done” list is like a to-do list in reverse. Instead of assigning yourself a bunch of tasks (many of which you might not get to), you write down the things you’ve done after you do them. So instead of ending the day with a list of things you haven’t accomplished, you end with a big list of wins.

Download our Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List ebook now, and fill up your “done list” today.

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